Colson Whitehead’s new novel, The Underground Railroad, is a brilliantly realized blend of magical and literary realism that grabs one hard at the start and rarely lets go. The magical aspect appears via Whitehead’s decision to make the railroad literal as opposed to a metaphor and in the way he has his protagonist Cora journey through an alternate history version of the South. The literary realism is seen in his searingly graphic depiction of the slave trade in all its gruesome aspects. The end result will linger some time in the reader’s mind, leaving an indelible impact.
The novel opens with a painfully vivid description of three generations of female slaves, ending with a focus on 16 or 17-year-old (like many slaves, she doesn’t know her age or birthday) Cora, whose mother Mabel abandoned her years earlier to run away from the Randall plantation. These roughly fifty pages make up only a small portion of The Underground Railroad, but they more than suffice to show the grimly casual brutality of the plantation. In these few pages we see rape, beatings, a man set on fire, and more. No surprise, then, that Cora decides to join Caesar, a fellow slave, in his escape attempt.
And here is where the “magical” part of the realism arrives, though the darker, more naturalistic realism never departs. For when they finally make it (not without a lot of tension and some loss) to an underground railroad station, we’re treated to the image of a real train track, only part of an extensive network:
The stairs led onto a small platform. The black mouths of the gigantic tunnel opened at either end. It must have been twenty feet tall … Two steel rails ran the visible length of the tunnels, pinned into the dirt by wooden crossties. The steel ran north and south presumably, spring from some inconceivable source and shooting toward a miraculous terminus …
“Who built it?”
“Who builds anything in this country?”
Later, a locomotive pulling a single car arrives and Cora and Caesar climb aboard for a lengthy journey:
When they next stepped into the sunlight, they were in South Carolina. She looked up at the skyscraper and reeled, wondering how far she had traveled.
As that “skyscraper” might denote, this is not the South Carolina that actually existed at the time. This South Carolina has a more “enlightened attitude toward colored advancement.” One that includes education, clean housing, paid wages, and medical care. Also included is Cora’s stint at a living history museum (a bit reminiscent of George Saunders), where she muses as she “performs” on how black history is related and distorted:
Nobody wanted to speak on the true disposition of the world. And no one wanted to hear it. Certainly not the white monsters on the other side of the exhibit at that very moment, pushing their greasy snouts against the window, sneering and hooting. Truth was a changing display in a shop window, manipulated by hands when you weren’t looking, alluring and ever out of reach.
It isn’t all that spoilery to point out what I’m sure most readers will suspect — that not all is as it seems in this apparent oasis of racial harmony and paternalistic uplift. Luckily, Cora susses this out just as readers will, leading to another escape via the railroad, this time to an alternate North Carolina, where the residents have put in place their own chillingly banal version of the Final Solution. Or as one character says, “Here the negro race did not exist except at the end of ropes.” And so Cora must move on yet again.
The Underground Railroad has a clear Swiftian feel to it, with Cora, like Gulliver, tracing an episodic journey that lands her in one fantastical spot after another. But the novel’s similarities goes beyond just this surface parallel, as just like Swift Whitehead wields a viciously satirical wit, referencing real world events within the fantastic setting and critiquing not just the easy target of slavery but also our history/conversation about it and our modern non-slave-based society. When, for example, he describes “patrollers” stopping blacks and asking for I.D.’s, even those they know are freedmen (just for the joy of putting them in their place), readers will recognize not only the ugliness of institutionalized slavery but also the clear echoes of modern day news stories/debates regarding relations between police and minorities. Just as one will recognize other analogues/near analogues, such as the notorious Tuskegee syphilis experiments.
Another strong aspect of the novel is its structure, with Cora’s narrative arc broken up (as indeed her own flight is) by several interruptions, including reward notices (real ones, I believe) for escaped slaves and chapter digressions that look backwards (and sometimes forwards) into the lives of characters beyond Cora, such as Caesar, or, in a particularly intense one, her mother Mabel.
As brilliant as the premise, satire, and structure are though, I don’t want to imply that The Underground Railroad is a coldly technical achievement. In Cora, Whitehead has created an unforgettable character at the emotional core of a deeply moving work. Her indefatigable spirit, her dry wit and cynicism, her complex attitude toward her disappeared mother, what she sees and witnesses even as she moves ever onward: all of this is brought fully and poignantly alive. The same vivid and deep characterization holds true for many of the other characters, regardless of how much page time they’re given. Standouts in the group include the aforementioned Caesar, several of the Underground Railroad agents, the Randall brothers, and especially the slave catcher Ridgeway. Driven by his own dedicated belief in the “American Imperative,” Ridgeway is a horrific (one of his assistants wears a necklace of human ears), implacable pursuer who could have stepped out of a Cormac McCarthy novel (think Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men) and his presence, even when he’s absent, haunts the work with a sense of tension and terror. That he easily justifies his actions, and that one can be pretty sure he’s barely a fictional creation — it’s hard if not impossible to overdo slavery’s horrors — makes his impact all the more strongly felt.
One final strong point to mention (this is hardly an exhaustive list) is Whitehead’s prose, which as the above examples should suffice to show, is highly attuned to its purpose in any given moment — lyrical in moments of emotional uplift, bare boned when blunt terseness is called for. The Underground Railroad is as well-crafted on the microcosmic sentence level as it is on the macro level of character and structure and theme. Horrifying at times, bleak quite often, heart-breaking quite often, frequently stomach-turning, always sharp-edged in wit and thought, fiercely compelling thanks to character and style, The Underground Railroad is a great read but also a substantive and deeply important one.